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On 20 September 1973, an estimated go million people watched as Billie Jean King prevailed in a winner-takes-all tennis match against 55-year-old Bobby Riggs, who was once ranked as the top male tennis player in the world. (1) Though King walked away from the 'Battle of the Sexes' with the US$100,000 prize, she had played for so much more. With Riggs, a self-proclaimed male chauvinist, disparaging the skills of female tennis players and degrading women more broadly at every opportunity, King took the court at the Houston Astrodome to win respect for female athletes and the codes they were competing in. (2) With her victory, she inspired countless women - athletes or otherwise - around the world.

Battle of the Sexes (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 2017) dramatises the events surrounding what has been recognised as one of the most significant moments in the history of sport. (3) The film shows King (Emma Stone) fighting for equitable compensation in professional tennis while also balancing new developments in her personal life - specifically, a discreet relationship with hairstylist Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). In the face of the newly emergent women's movement, Riggs (Steve Carell) challenges the top players in the women's game, declaring that the best female players in the world are not even good enough to beat men who, like him, are past their prime. Though King resists Riggs' initial challenges, she relents after he soundly defeats Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), setting the stage for a defining moment in professional sport.

Teaching with sport-related texts, including films like Battle of the Sexes, opens the door for students to have critical conversations about the sociopolitical issues that permeate sporting culture and our greater society. (4) This guide offers support for facilitating the study of Dayton and Faris' film and exploring gender equity with students in English and Media Studies courses at junior and senior secondary levels. Given the documented disparity in pay for men and women in both Australia and the world in general, considerations of equity are as timely as ever. (5)


Before students watch Battle of the Sexes, prepare them to consider topics addressed in the film by facilitating one of the following introductory activities, each of which is designed to help students build upon their prior knowledge and lived experiences.

Anticipation guide

Using a survey or opinionnaire as an anticipation guide presents students with controversial statements intended to help them weigh issues that will arise in a unit of study. (6) The following prompts, each of which stands to invite disagreement within the class, would help students consider issues raised in Battle of the Sexes. Multiple statements below are derived directly from arguments made in the film, such as those used by promoter Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) to defend paying women a small fraction of the prize money offered to men in an upcoming tennis tournament.

* Men should be compensated better than women because they have families to support.

* Male athletes are more exciting to watch than female athletes.

* Male athletes are more competitive than female athletes.

* Men are biologically superior to women.

* A woman's role in society should be domestic and not athletic.

* A sport's top female athlete cannot compete with an average male counterpart.

* A fight for women's rights is an attack on men's rights.

* Regardless of industry, compensation for performance should be equitable.

Through conversation, students can consider what they already know and believe about gender equity and sharpen their thinking about related issues as they consider the views offered by their peers.

#LikeAGirl: Weighing stereotypes

The menstrual-hygiene brand Always is the driving force behind the #LikeAGirl campaign. Intended to challenge the popular derogatory connotations associated with the hashtagged phrase, the campaign was launched with a short video (7) contrasting physical demonstrations of what it means to run, fight or throw 'like a girl'. The ad begins with male and female adolescents running in a stereotypically weak way, flailing their arms and legs about while exaggerating their smiles; later, however, young girls do so earnestly, pumping their arms and legs forcefully while expressing determined looks. By showing this distinction, the video's creators make the point that, as they grow up, children come to learn that performing athletic feats 'like a girl' means doing them in a weak manner.

This video can be used to jump-start conversations about stereotypes related to female athletic performance. After watching it with students, invite them to consider the stereotypes we see shining through and the repercussions that can stem from such views. Prompts might include the following;

* What stereotypes about girls do you see in this video clip?

* Where do you think stereotypes like these come from, and how do they persist?

* To what degree do you think such stereotypes inform how society views female athletes specifically and women more generally?

* What effects - big and small - do you see such stereotypes having in our world?

* What can you do to challenge or disrupt those stereotypes?


Scholars advocate for discussion in the classroom because it enables students to consider multiple perspectives: their own, those expressed by their peers and those advanced by the author or creator of the text in question. (8) Moreover, media-literacy scholars have long promoted the value of active viewing strategies, including taking notes and exploring open-ended questions. (9) Therefore, as students view Battle of the Sexes, engage them in discussion about the film and the issues it raises by providing, among others, the following prompts:

* Early in the film, King and Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) confront Kramer about female tennis players competing for only one-eighth of the prize money that their male counterparts are vying for in an upcoming tournament. Recalling the arguments made by King and Kramer, respectively, whose position do you support? Why?

* While promoting the women's tour in a radio interview, King explains, 'What we're doing is trying to prove that women should be paid and respected equally. We're just as entertaining as the men.' In response, the interviewer quips, 'You're definitely cuter than the men.' How, if at all, might emphasising a woman's appearance work to undermine her credibility as an athlete? Is focusing on a female athlete's appearance a behaviour from a bygone era, or does it persist today? What examples can you recall to support your thinking?

* When Riggs is contemplating competing against a female tennis player, his therapist (Matt Malloy) suggests he compete against Court. Regarding Court, the therapist explains, 'She's a different kind of woman [...] She's a nice old-fashioned girl, Bobby. She'll do as she's damn well told.' In the context of the early 1970s, why do Riggs and his therapist view conformity as a positive trait for a woman? What evidence in the film so far suggests that King does not fit that mould?

* During a conversation with Barnett, King relays a story about being excluded from a photo taken at a tennis club as a child for wearing shorts instead of a skirt. King describes thinking at the time, 'That does it. I'm gonna be the best. That way, I can really change things; that way, I have a voice.' Do you have to be the very best in your industry to have a voice and make a difference? Can you think of instances in sport and society where those who might not be considered elite were able to bring about change and advance social justice? And if you don't have to be the best, what does it take to have a voice and make a difference in the world today?

* Riggs makes several incendiary comments during the film, such as T want to prove that women are lousy and they don't belong on the same court as a man,' and 'Now, don't get me wrong, I love women - in the bedroom and in the kitchen.' Judging on his depiction in the film, do you think the real-life Riggs believed such statements, or was he simply putting on a show for the media? What is it about his characterisation here that convinces you one way or the other?

* Responding to a man declaring that 'men are better', King clarifies, 'I'm not saying women are better. I've never said that. I'm saying we deserve some respect.' The exchange reflects a common misconception about feminism: the notion that it's a movement promoting the superiority of women. When fighting for equity, how does one convince the opposition that equity is not an 'either-or' proposition but, rather, an 'and-also' proposition?

* Embracing King after her win over Riggs, Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming) assures her, 'Someday we will be free to be who we are and love who we love.' Do you think that day has arrived? If so, what makes you so certain? If not, what obstacles do you think prevent equity in that form from being realised?


The following activities stand to support learning after students have viewed Battle of the Sexes. Decisions about which activities to incorporate should be driven by thoughtful considerations of the unique classroom context, especially taking into account students' needs.

Investigating equity, then and now

Given that the events depicted in Battle of the Sexes took place more than four decades ago, studying the film presents an opportunity for students to conduct inquiry projects exploring how, if at all, equity in men's and women's sports has evolved over time. To that end, students might explore questions tied directly back to the film, such as the following:

* To what extent, if any, has the gap in prize money for male and female tennis players closed since the early 1970s?

* What developments over the last forty-plus years represent milestones in the push for equity in professional tennis?

* What obstacles to equity remain?

Such inquiry projects need not be limited to tennis alone. Student choice is a central feature of classroom inquiry, (10) so students could select sports of high interest to them, investigate how equitable those sports are today and document how their current status compares to yesteryear. Likewise, students could choose to investigate gender equity in sports from various regions of the globe, be it Australia, North America, Asia or elsewhere. For instance, students might opt to explore the challenges faced by the recently instated AFL Women's competition, including a controversial proposal to change the rules in the second season, (11) and lingering questions about the amounts female football players are paid. (12) Moreover, given arguments in the film about men's and women's physical capabilities, students might explore the necessity of separating sporting competitions by sex. Students could, for example, research the history of mixed-sex tennis matches, (13) or explore women's forays into men's golf over the years. (14) No matter the angle from which students opt to investigate gender equity, they should prepare to share their learning with others via display, presentation, performance or publication. (15)

Comparing and contrasting via historical research

Studying Battle of the Sexes also creates an opportunity for students to conduct historical research that can support them in comparing and contrasting Faris and Dayton's cinematic representation of King and Riggs - along with the events surrounding their monumental showdown - with what is known about the actual individuals and the events they were involved in during the early 1970s. When carrying out such a project, students might consider how cinematic elements of the film enhance the depiction of individuals and events they are investigating, and in what ways, if any, the medium limits the retelling of those people's lives and experiences. (16) Alternatively, such a project might extend beyond the scope of Battle of the Sexes, and anchor a unit of study focused on analysing cinematic representations of a range of historical figures and events - sport-related or otherwise - in light of students' own research.

Examining depictions of women's sport in feature films

The study of Battle of the Sexes also presents an opportunity for students to conduct an extended exploration of top-level women's sport as depicted in popular films. Students could, for example, consider the treatment of other cinematic female athletes in light of Battle of the Sexes. Inviting students to examine fictional characters or those inspired by real people opens the pool of films for consideration to include titles such as A League of Their Own (Penny Marshall, 1992), Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004) or Whip It (Drew Barrymore, 2009). Students might compare representations of heroines, their relationships with others, the purpose of their athletic pursuits, the resistance they encounter in the films and other points of interest to deepen their understandings of popular-media depictions of women's sport.

Studying documentary films

After students have watched Battle of the Sexes, consider supplementing the study of gender equity and/or female athletes challenging established norms by inviting students to view documentary films that are topically related. From short to feature-length documentaries, there are several films to consider, including:

* Venus Vs. (Ava DuVernay, 2013): Like King before her, American tennis star Venus Williams fought for equitable compensation for male and female players. As a result, in 2007, Williams became the first women's champion at Wimbledon to earn as much prize money as the men's. This film from ESPN's Nine for IXseries documents her fight for gender equity.

* Let Them Wear Towels (Ricki Stern & Annie Sundberg, 2013): This film, also from ESPN's Nine for IX series, captures female sports reporters' fight for acceptance in a largely male-dominated industry, and their ongoing pursuit of a harassment-free workplace.

* Rowdy Ronda Rousey (The Mundo Sisters, 2014): This film, from ESPN's accompanying Nine for IX Shorts series, presents Ronda Rousey, an Olympian and a decorated mixed martial artist who has battled sexism in the gym and inspired others as a trailblazer in what is often viewed as a male-dominated sport. (17)

* Brittney Griner: Lifesize (Melissa Johnson, 2014): Also from ESPN's Nine for IXShorts series, this film spotlights the life of Brittney Griner, a woman who supplements her income playing professional basketball for the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) by competing in China during the WNBA's off-season. (18)

When viewing such documentary films, encourage students to make text-to-text connections and extend the understandings they have built while studying Battle of the Sexes.

Luke Rodesiler. PhD, currently an assistant professor of secondary education at Purdue University Fort Wayne, is a former high school English teacher and a teacher consultant of Red Cedar Writing Project. Michigan State University's site of the National Writing Project.


(1) 'Battle of the Sexes', Billie Jean King official site, <>, accessed 29 January 2018.

(2) ibid.

(3) '32: Battle of the Sexes', '100 Greatest Moments in Sports History', Sports Illustrated, <>, accessed 29 January 2018.

(4) See Luke Rodesiler, 'Sports-based Text Sets: Fostering Critical Literacy at the Intersections of Sport and Society', The Clearing House, vol. 90, no. 2, 2017, pp. 35-40.

(5) For the Australian context, see 'Australia's Gender Pay Gap Statistics', Workplace Gender Equality Agency, February 2018, p. 3, <>. For an example of overseas pay disparity, see American Association of University Women, The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap, Spring 2018, p. 4, < file=The-Simple-Truth>, both accessed 12 April 2018.

(6) Peter Smagorinsky, Teaching English by Design: How to Create and Carry Out Instructional Units, Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH, 2008.

(7) Always #LikeAGirl', YouTube, 26 June 2014, <>, accessed 12 April 2018.

(8) See Judith A Langer, Envisioning Literature: Literary Understanding and Literature Instruction, 2nd edn, Teachers College Press, New York, 2011, pp. 50-2.

(9) See Renee Hobbs, 'Non-optimal Uses of Video in the Classroom', Learning, Media and Technology, vol. 31, no. 1, March 2006, pp. 35-50.

(10) Harvey 'Smokey' Daniels & Steven Zemelman, Subjects Matter: Exceeding Standards Through Powerful Content-area Reading, 2nd edn, Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH, 2014, p. 168.

(11) Dean Bilton, AFLW's Second Season Could Be More Important than the First, but Can It Rise to the Occasion?', ABC News, 2 February 2018, <>, accessed 3 March 2018.

(12) Hannah Mouncey, 'Inclusive History of Women's Football Behind Success of AFLW, The Guardian, 1 February 2018, <>, accessed 3 March 2018.

(13) Robert Wood, 'Men Versus Women Tennis Matches', Topend Sports, 2008, <>, accessed 17 April 2018.

(14) ML Rose, 'LPGA Women Who Played on the PGA Tour', Golfweek, <>, accessed 17 April 2018.

(15) Daniels & Zemelman, op. cit., p. 261.

(16) See Dawan Coombs, '"Reel" Stories vs. "Real" Stories: Uncovering Sports History Fact and Fiction', in Alan Brown & Luke Rodesiler (eds), Developing Contemporary Literacies Through Sports: A Guide for the English Classroom, National Council of Teachers of English, Urbana, IL, 2016, pp. 107-12.

(17) See Luke Rodesiler, 'Ladies First: Studying Short Documentaries About Women in Sport', Screen Education, no. 83, Spring 2016, pp. 70-6.

(18) ibid, p. 73.


The following materials can support teachers and students who are interested in learning more about Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs and the pair's historic tennis match.

'What's Fact and What's Fiction in Battle of the Sexes'

June Thomas examines how true Faris and Dayton's film is to the historical events involving King and Riggs.

A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs, and the Tennis Match That Leveled the Game

Selena Roberts' 2005 book documents the history of the events depicted in the film Battle of the Sexes.

The Match Maker'


Don Van Natta Jr investigates speculation that Riggs, a noted gambler, intentionally threw his match against King.

'Makers: Women Who Make America - Billie Jean King'

This PBS short documents King's rise as a tennis player, the birth of professional women's tennis and the Battle of the Sexes'.

'Billie Jean King'

This webpage from the International Tennis Hall of Fame presents an overview of King's career achievements and the incredible impact of her work, both on the tennis court and off.

'Bobby Riggs'

Also from the International Tennis Hall of Fame, this webpage documents Riggs' achievements over the course of his career, as well as the notoriety he gained as an antagonist of female tennis players in the 1970s.
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Author:Rodesiler, Luke
Publication:Screen Education
Date:Jun 1, 2018
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